the lost art of debate

Part of the glamour of my illustrious high school career (and yes, please chuckle at the asserted, youthful perception) was being a standout member of my high school speech team. Paling slightly in comparison to the prestige (and scholarships) produced by the athletic department, there were numerous competition events, from Poetry and Prose, Humorous and Dramatic Interpretation, not to mention Impromptu and Extemporaneous Speaking, the latter of which would result in my teenage, semi-claim to fame.

Another event oft offered was debate. Debate means an individual or team works to convince a judge that their side of an issue is more valid than another’s.

The rules are agreed upon. The topic is researched. Logical arguments are prepared. Note that an argument on the debate stage equates to offering “a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong.” Argument does not equate to anger. In fact, anger — and its expressive, emotional equivalents — i.e. scorn, condescension, loud disrespect — is frowned upon. It actually is cause for judges to rate competitors poorly.

Interruptions are also minimized. They are allowed only for specific, predefined purpose, such as to get information about the rules, ask a question of privilege, make a point of order or to appeal with a judge/moderator’s ruling. Note, too, interruptions for the purpose of “just wanting to make my point now” or drown someone out or not let another’s point get any traction whatsoever are not permissible on the debate stage. Why? Because with such motive there is no decorum. There is no respect.

Debate is an exchange of ideas based on respectful dialogue. At least that’s what we learned in high school.

As averred by the National Speech & Debate Association, “The importance of respect in this activity cannot be overstated. Because this is an activity designed to facilitate argument, it is often easy to not be civil to opponents. Students cannot let the ease with which incivility comes overwhelm them. All competitors must make an effort to be courteous to their fellow students, to their judges, and to all involved in the activity… Judges will never vote down a debtor for being too courteous.”

And yet as we’ve witnessed, debate in modern day America — debate across the globe — has cringingly morphed from what we learned as adolescents to now into some kind of ideological food fight. It doesn’t matter what you throw, as long as it sticks and makes a notable mess.

Forget about those in the national spotlight. Whether their preferred debate approach is to bawdily bully via rampant interruption or self-serving, manufactured fact or to tactically avoid as long as possible due to an incapability to be consistently coherent, the reality is that politics is downstream from current culture. And current culture isn’t good at either the respect or the idea exchange. 

We have lost the art of debate, friends. We have lost the ability — and the recognition that said ability is good — to sit with the difference of another. And discuss.

How many have had a friend shut us down, saying, “I’m sorry, but we have too many differences to be friends”… or “that’s just too big of a difference”… or even have one suggest, “Ok, we can be friends, but if you ever disagree with me, we’re done.” Sorry, but that sounds more the leaning of an adolescent. That is not good. Not wise. And it is certainly void of the wisdom that is embedded in debate, in the sharing of argument, in the respectful exchange of ideas, both those that are similar. And those that are not.

Years ago, I listened to a TEDTalk by political philosopher and Harvard professor Michael Sandel. He believes that democracy thrives on civil debate. He also believes we’re shamefully out of practice. We aren’t good at that mutual exchange of varied ideas and learning from one another. We’re not good at recognizing the ease with which incivility overwhelms us and justifies less honorable behavior.

Says Sandel, “A better way to mutual respect is to engage directly with the moral convictions citizens bring to public life rather than to require that people leave their deepest moral convictions outside politics before they enter. That it seems to me the way to begin to restore the art of democratic argument.”

Remember: argument isn’t anger. 

By the way, we learned that in high school.